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30 days of songs: Day 1

May 23, 2011

day 01 – your favorite song: Sarah Jarosz, “Run Away.”

My favorite song today (I can never tell you much beyond that – my favorite songs are nearly always short-lived, whatever I’ve picked up recently and just can’t put down) is Sarah Jarosz’s “Run Away.” My last several favorite songs have also been by Sarah Jarosz. I’m a little obsessed at the moment. I first heard her on A Prairie Home Companion a few weeks ago and now I’m singing her praises with the zeal of the newly converted.

I’ve been developing a deep and abiding love for bluegrass for some time now. My love stems from a bunch of places – academic interests in American music and in notions of “traditional,” my interest in furthering my fiddle skills through the exploration of multiple styles and traditions, my fascination with the radio stations we pick up whenever we’re driving through Kentucky and North Carolina en route to the beach, and the pure joy of listening. I also really love the instruments – fiddle, mando, octave mando, banjo, guitar, bass – I want to play them all (I’m halfway there!). I’ve especially been interested in the groups that are getting called “newgrass,” including the now defunct Nickel Creek, The Punch Brothers (of which Nickel Creek’s mando phenom Chris Thile is a crucial member). I am also a huge fan of The Meat Purveyors, especially their crazy-fantastic-hilarious Madonna Trilogy, which takes three early Madonna hits (Like a Virgin, Lucky Star and Burning Up for your Love) and turns them into one kick-ass bluegrass medley.

So Sarah Jarosz is a little of the right musician at the right time. But I also love the sound of Jarosz’s voice. One of the things that kept me from bluegrass for a while is the prevalence of a nasal vocal tone. While I can appreciate it as part of the idiom, I just don’t care for it that much. Jarosz’s voice does something different to traditional songs, makes me hear them differently. And that’s an interesting thing. She also does some interesting covers. Her first album, Song Up in Her Head, includes a cover of the Decembrists’ Shankhill Butchers that I like better than the original, and I like the original a lot (it’s on The Crane Wife). Her latest album, released last week, includes covers of Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” and Radiohead’s “The Tourist.” The latter includes The Punch Brothers as well. If you search for Jarosz videos on youtube, you’ll find other covers as well: Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands,” Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” Gillian Welch’s “My Morphine” (in a performance with Sara and Sean Watkins, the rest of Nickel Creek), and even jazz standard “The Way You Look Tonight.”

But the songs I keep coming back to are the Jarosz originals. This week, that means I’m listening to “Run Away,” the first track off her latest album, and the one whose lyrics give the album its title, Follow Me Down.

The above recording is a little muddy, but it gives you the idea. You can hear the bluegrass elements in both accompaniment, melodic line, and lyrics. But it is evocative and atmospheric in a way she does so well. I love the arrangement too. The intertwining of bowed and plucked strings provides a great background for her voice and gives her enough rhythmic and contrapuntal flexibility to do just about anything, as you can hear if you compare “Follow Me Down” to “The Way You Look.” She’s very young. In fact, today is her 20th birthday. And she’s currently studying at New England Conservatory. For a musician who does such a great job of handling a variety of styles and genres, it ought to be interesting to see where she goes from here.

In any case, I’m finding the current popularity of bluegrass to be really interesting. I hear The Punch Brothers on the radio quite a lot and not just on NPR. And Mumford and Sons, also bluegrass influenced although handling it differently (also, they’re from England), is on the local rock stations constantly. I always used to think of bluegrass and highly regional, in part because I mostly just listened to it when we drove through Appalachia. But it’s base is broadening and that ought to be an interesting thing for the genre as a whole.

What’s your favorite song of the moment?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 24, 2011 9:27 am

    Run Away is particularly beautiful and interesting. I can see how it would be a song you’d want to “exercise.” I do that too, but usually with songs that also have some kind of emotional significance, like where they come in the story of something (all roads lead back to musical theater, with me).

  2. May 24, 2011 10:52 am

    That’s interesting, Jeanne. I think a lot of the songs that do this to me have implied stories. Another one I was listening to a lot recently is Sufjan Stevens’ “Casimir Pulaski Day,” which is very much a song with a story behind it. There’s a lot of story behind it, actually, maybe enough for a film. I’m intrigued by his lyrics, which offer a few very specific details and some really big holes. It’s a great way to tell this particular story (a girl dying of bone cancer and the singer, who is her friend). It leaves gaping holes for you to fill in, but they are just the right ones, the ones that are familiar in stories of young people dying too soon of illnesses. And instead it focuses on surface details that imply the emotional weight behind them. This particular song is less like that, but it’s evocative in a soundtracky kind of way that makes me make up my own stories to go along with it.

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